By Scott Robertson
A friend suggested after we watched the first ETSU football game in more than a decade that I title my column about it, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” I think it’s more fitting to go back a little further in Hollywood History, though. Charleton Heston’s Bonarati biopic seemed to have a better title for this epic, because actually there really wasn’t that much in the way of ugliness at the Bucs’ opener, and there also wasn’t much middle ground between the emotional highs and lows.
The good news is: there were plenty of emotional high points. For those who remember the bad old days of a mostly empty minidome – where the fans were lulled comatose by a dirge-like rendition of Tennessee Waltz before every kick-off, and the only “buzz” about the game was the annoying sound emanating from the stadium lights, which were louder than the crowd – the excitement at Science Hill’s Kermit Tipton Stadium Thursday afternoon was electrifying.
ETSU Athletic Director Dr. Richard “Doc” Sander, Assistant AD Scott Carter and the rest of the staff who worked to bring back football brought with it an energy I had never been able to associate with Buccaneer football, and I started watching when the team played in the Ohio Valley Conference.
As my wife and I walked toward the stadium, we kept running into friends and acquaintances, each seemingly more pleasantly surprised than the last at the environment in which we all found ourselves. There were inflatables for the kids. There was a student tailgate section big enough for the greeks and the geeks to all have a good time. There was a merch tent with merchandise a young person might reasonably be expected to want. One tee shirt featured Star Wars character Boba Fett in blue and gold with the caption, “Go, Fett, Win!” You could buy anything from jerseys to blue fun wigs.
At random intervals someone would shout, “Go Bucs!” and be rewarded by echoing cheers. The parking lots around the stadium were packed, and tailgating was in full swing. Kids of all ages tossed footballs between rows of cars as barbeque scented the air.
This was buzz!
On approaching the stadium gate, I experienced something totally new to me as a Buccaneer football fan. There was a line to get in.
Oh, I’ve waited to get into basketball games, back in the heyday of Jennings, Talford, Dennis and company. I even remember waiting to get in to see Cat Watson, Scott Place, D.C. Smith, Atlee Hammaker and the rest of Coach Sonny Smith’s charges take the court. But I never had to wait to see the dynamic Mark Hutsell lead the football Bucs of the same era. Or any other era. Until now.
We made our way to our seats astonished at how many young people were in the crowd. In the past I would have feared that the choice of PA music would have been a turn-off for these kids. But the athletic department was a step ahead of the game again. I had no idea who performed the song pumping out of the speakers 45 minutes before kick-off. I used my smartphone’s “shazam” app (a program that listens to a few seconds of recorded music, then tells you the name of the song and the artist). I did not recognize the name of the song or the artist. But then I’m closing in on 50 years old. The Bucs don’t need to be playing music by anyone I know. They need to be playing to students whose musical tastes are current. At one point, the scoreboard invited fans to go online and choose which of three tracks would be played over the PA. That’s fantastic!
Then came the pre-game show. The band was what a college marching band should be. And when the band played the Tennessee Waltz, it played an up-tempo version, embedded between not one, but two fight songs.
I turned to my wife and said, “They get it. They finally get it.”
There was also the element of agony, and we must be honest. The final score of the game, of course, and pretty much everything that happened on the field of play after about 8:30 p.m. failed to live up to the rest of the day’s script of rebirth and redemption.
And there were a few minor glitches. A drone hovering over the stadium caused stoppage of the game until it landed and was taken away. That was foreseeable and avoidable.
More than once the band began playing at one end of the field during a time out, only to be drowned out by an audio-video package on the scoreboard. Things like that take a little time to coordinate, but now, as opposed to years ago, one has faith that these things will be fixed.
The challenge now is for the community to be patient and let Coach Carl Torbush and his staff cultivate the on-field product. Under President Dr. Brian Noland, the Committee for 125, and the athletic department, ETSU has made great strides in creating a positive environment in which to build a football program. That dedication, like the dedication of every band member, every color guard member, every cheerleader, and of course, every player, deserves the long-term support of anyone who’s ever claimed to be a Buccaneer.
Now, more than ever, go Bucs!